The topic of conservatism’s intellectual decline is one I’ve been talking about a lot recently; I’ve been remiss in not mentioning the recent piece on that topic in the WaPo by Steven Hayward. He makes a number of points, but here’s I think his main argument:
[It] was not enough just to expose liberalism’s weakness; it was also necessary to offer robust alternatives for both foreign and domestic policy, ideas that came to fruition in the Reagan years. Today, it is not clear that conservative thinkers have compelling alternatives to Obama’s economic or foreign policy. At best, the right is badly divided over how to fix the economy and handle Iran and Afghanistan. So for the time being, the populists alone have the spotlight.
The single largest defect of modern conservatism, in my mind, is its insufficient ability to challenge liberalism at the intellectual level, in particular over the meaning and nature of progress. In response to the left’s belief in political solutions for everything, the right must do better than merely invoking “markets” and “liberty.”
As mainstream “Happy Meal” conservatism wanes under populist and knee-jerk response dogma, there’s an opening for a new generation of conservatives who stand out all the more. The best example in my mind is the League of Ordinary Gentlemen. Other examples of nuevo-cons are Rod Dreher, Daniel Larison, and Reihan Salaam. These are the names to watch. It’s they who will take the Reagan era conservative ideals and synthesize them into the modern age, making them relevant again.
One thing conservatives have to accept though is that there is no more validity to the concept of small govt. Its always going to big. The question is, how will it be used? My own liberal and libertarian inclinations combine in such a way as to favor govt action on the major issues so that govt is too busy to act on the small ones. Frankly, I fear the tyranny of local govt far more because there are fewer checks and balances on it; the threat of economic oppression by unrestrained capitalism also is something conservative ideology is tailormade to defend against. The challenge for conservatives now is to dial back on the rhetoric and re-examine the issues of today with the core principles – freedom, opportunity, culture – instead of blindly applying dogma (limited govt, lower taxes) like a blunt instrument.
UPDATE: Speaking of the LOG, how could I fail to link their own response to Hayward’s piece (with some cogent critique)?